Thanks to an NCAA rule change this season, underclassmen are allowed to declare early for the NBA draft, go through the evaluation process and then choose to go pro or return to school (if they haven’t signed with an agent). From now until May 25, which is decision day, SI will periodically weigh in on the most interesting decisions left to be made. Up first is Mississippi State freshman Malik Newman.
Season review: A consensus five-star signee from Jackson, Miss., Malik Newman turned down scholarships from the likes of Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina to sign with Mississippi State. As a freshman Newman averaged 11.3 points per game and played in 29 games, starting 21.
The Case for College: Newman wasn’t able to find a rhythm during an injury-prone first season in Starkville. He missed a chunk of preseason practice and the season opener with turf toe and later had to deal with back spasms and a knee injury. A former McDonald’s All-American, Newman finished just fourth on the Bulldogs in points per game and was an ineffective scorer inside the arc, hitting fewer two-pointers (50) than threes (61). In fact, he had the worst two-point percentage (40.7) of any Mississippi State player. In the end Newman was the fourth-most efficient offensive option (100.0 rating) of the roster’s five most frequently used players.
At 6'3", Newman lacks the size of a traditional NBA two-guard, but he could hone his skills under a head coach who has a history of developing NBA prospects. Ben Howland had 18 players selected in the NBA draft during his 10 seasons as head coach at UCLA, and he’s spent just one year at MSU. Plus, it’s likely Newman evolves into a bigger part of the offense next season. Forward Gavin Ware and guard Craig Sword, Mississippi State’s two leading scorers at 15.4 and 13.0 points per game, respectively, were both seniors in 2015–16. That puts Newman in line to be one of the Bulldogs' primary offensive options.
The Case for the NBA: Newman has already proven himself as one of the SEC’s most capable three-point shooters. His 61 total treys led the team last season, and he shot 37.9% from deep on the year, which ranked 19th in the conference. Newman also showed he can be a high-volume scorer; he hit 7-of-10 threes en route to a season-high 25 points in a win against Ole Miss on Jan. 23. He is a threat in catch-and-shoot situations and enjoys getting out in transition, where he can make plays both for himself and his teammates.
A return to school means Newman will be forced into a brighter spotlight on a team that wasn’t very good last season. The Bulldogs finished 7–11 in SEC play, 11th in the conference. But opponents would likely hone in on Newman without Sword and Ware on the floor, a worrisome challenge for a player who already struggled with injuries and shooting as a freshman. Newman’s health is a consideration, as well; another year at Mississippi State is also another chance for injuries to derail his NBA hopes. If the physical toll of another college season threatens Newman’s future, he should say goodbye to Starkville.
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Mock Draft rankings: SI (first round only): Unranked; Draft Express: No. 43; NBAdraft.net: Unranked
Final verdict: Newman’s best bet is to return to Mississippi State, get healthy and fine-tune his shooting before committing to the NBA.